The champions looked off the pace in Italian season opener
The Italian season opened on Sunday night with the “surprise” of Lazio’s comprehensive 3-2 defeat of champions Juventus in the SuperCoppa at the Olympic Stadium, Rome.
Lazio’s emphatic win (the SuperCoppa is the Italian equivalent of the FA’s Community Shield) may well prove to have been merely a temporary stumbling block on the Old Lady’s normally all triumphant, domestic progress. With Serie A due to start this weekend, Juventus are clearly still far from fully fit and wound-up for the new season. It could also be that, like two seasons back when the Old Lady started off very poorly only to roar her way back to the head of affairs in the second half of the season, this defeat has only a relative meaning.
However, it is worth making a number of points, here and now. Rarely in the last seven seasons have we seen a Juventus side so emphatically outpointed in Italy. It was as if we had gone back to the second half of their losing Champions League Final in Cardiff. Their lack of match fitness was patently obvious but does this defeat also say something about both their “motivation” and the negative impact of that Cardiff experience?
What this defeat does say is that Lazio remain a very handy unit, brilliantly led by one of the brightest young coaching talents on the Italian circuit, namely the former Lazio striker, Simone Inzaghi. We did not need Sunday night’s game to discover this.
Ironically, Inzaghi finds himself in the hot seat at Lazio, almost by default. In early July 2016, Lazio had announced that their new coach for the season would be Argentine, Marcelo Bielsa, the former Argentina, Chile, Athletic Bilbao and Olympique Marseille coach. Within days of that announcement, however, Bielsa did a U-turn and resigned, apparently because of transfer market disagreements with Lazio owner Claudio Lotito.
In something of a panic, Lotito hastily recalled Inzaghi, who had guided the club through the final days of the 2015-2016 season, following the dismissal of coach Stefano Pioli. For most of last summer, it had seemed that Inzaghi was headed for the coach’s job at Salernitana, a Serie B club that is also part owned by the indefatigable Mr. Lotito.
As a youth and reserve team coach at Lazio, Simone Inzaghi had already done more than well, for example winning the “Primavera” Coppa Italia in 2014. At Serie A level, however, he was an unknown quantity. Despite his inexperience, though, Inzaghi did more than well last season to guide Lazio to a fifth place, Serie A finish on 70 points, 21 behind Juventus.
Handed a squad that was short on international household names, Inzaghi got stuck in, made the best of what was available and formed a team that caused problems for everyone. A 3-1 derby win over Roma last April was probably the high point of a league season which saw Inzaghi get the best out of enigmatic talent such as Senegalese striker, Keita, as well as Brazilian Felipe Anderson. Under Inzaghi last season, Lazio lost, at least once, to Juventus, Inter, AC Milan, Roma, Napoli and Fiorentina but the side rarely dropped points against the mid-table and lower Serie A sides.
On the basis of what we saw on Sunday night, however, this year’s Lazio will be even more competitive. For example, many had wondered about the negative impact of selling their experienced Argentine captain and leader, Lucas Biglia, to Inter. Yet, the performance of his replacement, ex-Liverpool player, Brazilian Lucas Lieva, would suggest that Lazio have already resolved that problem.
In the end, though, what do we make of Juventus? “Is This Really Juventus?” asked La Repubblica’s experienced commentator, Gianni Mura, on Monday morning. Is it not probable that in offloading both talisman Leonardo Bonucci and experienced Brazilian Dani Alves, Juventus have badly weakened their defence, at least for now? Does the team need a quality midfield schemer to help take the pressure off talented Bosnian Miralem Pjanic who, at times, looked just a little singlehanded in the creative department on Sunday night?
Mind you, it is worth bearing in mind that even in the midst of Sunday’s debacle, there were positive Juventus signals. For a start, new boy, Brazilian Douglas Costa (ex-Bayern Munich) already looks the part, putting himself about with real pace, especially on the flanks. For a second, Argentinian ace Paulo Dybala, scorer of both his side’s goals, looks ready for a very good season. For a third, despite having been outplayed for 70 minutes, Juventus managed to get back into the game, scoring the 2-2 equaliser in the 91st minute, only to be floored two minutes later by a goal from former youth team player, 21-year-old Alessandro Murgia.
One man who may have arrived at some contrasting conclusions in the wake of Sunday’s game is Italian national team coach, Giampiero Ventura. With that all vital, Spain v Italy World Cup qualifier in Madrid just under three weeks away, he will have been worried about the fitness (or lack) of such as Juve’s Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli. On the other hand, the sparkling form of his first choice central striker, Lazio’s Ciro Immobile, scorer of two goals, will have greatly encouraged him. You win some and you lose some.
The main point, though, is that the curtain on the new Serie A season is about to go up, starting as of this coming weekend. Juventus v Cagliari on Saturday evening will set the ball rolling. “In bocca al lupo” to everyone.